Getting their kicks
The popularity of pickleball as a sport for people of a certain age is well known. But how many people 60-plus are playing soccer and enjoying it? More than you might imagine.
Walking soccer originated in the U.K. as early as 1932. Only recently has it gained momentum among older Americans. And now, thanks to Carl Prufer, enthusiasts are playing the game in Ashland.
As a grassroots sport, walking soccer developed rules that were ad-hoc and varying. The Football Association in England stepped in to create some official guidance and rules, helping transform a hobby or form of exercise into competitive tournaments for those who still had room in their trophy cabinets.
Prufer, 83, heard about walking soccer from a friend, Owen Jones, a Brit. “He told me what was going on in England.”
Prufer has been a soccer player and coach most his life.
“I started coaching as a parent of a son and daughter who both wanted to play the game,” he said. “I thought it looked like fun, and I talked a bunch of guys at work into getting out on a pitch (field) to try it out.”
Some of his Bay Area work buddies were former players, and soon they found themselves competing in a league.
Twenty years later, in about 1995, he moved from the Bay Area to the Rogue Valley. He continued the game here. “No coaching,” he said, “but lots of playing — as part of the Ashland Soccer Club, plus Friday night pickup games.”
He became certified as a referee and officiated at youth soccer games. “I had to run more as a ref than I did as a player,” he laughed.
At about age 63 he felt he was getting too slow for the game, so he decided to try his hand at sculling. He joined the Ashland Rowing Club (now the Rogue Rowing Club). But when he learned about walking soccer, it piqued the interest of one of the game’s old soldiers.
Prufer couldn’t do it alone, so he decided to spread the word by teaching it through OLLI at SOU. He taught two co-ed classes, one in the fall of 2020 and another the following spring.
“I had about 10 people in each class, and about half of them came out to the field to try it out,” he said. Now there are about 20 participating in scrimmages at the North Mountain Park ballfield.
It’s still a pickup game,” he said, “although we’ve been playing Saturday mornings pretty regularly. It’s very informal, although I keep my whistle at hand.”
For the most part, the rules don’t deviate from the original soccer game. However, they’ve been tweaked to protect the health and stamina of older participants, and for maximum enjoyment.
The game is played on a small field with small goals. There is no running, with or without the ball. There is no contact, no balls above the head, and no off-sides.
Although it is not as swift or risky as regular soccer, there is still plenty of action in the walking version.
“Some people can walk pretty quickly,” Prufer said. “And five-on-five competition can be pretty intense.
Has anybody been injured in the Ashland games?
“Nothing serious,” Prufer said. A sore this or that. “But the feedback I’ve been getting is that it’s really fun, and let’s keep doing it.”
Participants are mostly in their 60s and 70s, with two in their 50s and two in their 80s. They enjoy the social aspects of the game, the group play, and the exercise. Some are novices. Others have some experience.
Marilyn Hawkins, 69, lives in Ashland and played soccer for more than 20 years in Seattle in leagues of the Washington State Women’s Soccer Association.
“That is, until one cold morning when I went up for a header and came down without a right Achilles,” she said.
Hawkins heard about Prufer’s group at Centennial Golf Club in Medford.
“A woman I play golf with mentioned the game to me,” Hawkins said. “I showed up for the first time a few months ago and was instantly hooked. It turns out I’m probably better at soccer than golf.”
She says walking soccer is a good way to work up a serious sweat, and she enjoys the fact that it’s co-ed.
“I think the guys really appreciate the friendly competition and the frivolous trash talk,” she said. “And it beats the heck out of going to the gym.”
Tom Pyle, 82, says it’s “definitely” a lot of fun.
“But it’s also very difficult to just walk and not break into a run,” he said. “It’s not that my run would be any faster than my walk. It’s just trying not to run isn’t easy.”
Pyle wishes the goals were bigger. “Every time I shoot, I miss!”
Lauren Schaffer, 70, of Ashland, had never played soccer before.
“I like to stay in shape and cross train, cycling being my main sport,” she said. “I heard about the game, got involved, and it’s just great fun.”
She’s impressed with her fellow participants.
“There are a lot of ‘olders’ in amazing shape who are very competitive. They’re a really fun group of people,” she said.
Prufer would like to see a Medford team come together. “We could scrimmage,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the day we can play with other teams.”
For more information about walking soccer and how to participate, email Prufer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at email@example.com.